By Jeff Bailey
The Charging Tiger Tavern, at the top of Pavtlow Boulevard, has the best view of the Ussuran docks at Five Sails, and it was here-
Torsten Vakt slapped his beefy and callused hand on Pavel Ivanov’s painstakingly coiffed head, nearly knocking his glasses off his ears. “Tupoy! You’re not writing a traveler’s book. I’m posting this on the challenge board of the District Gymnasium!”
Pavel shuddered. The Gymnasium sat so close to the border between the Ussuran and Eisen districts that it frequently served as the field of honor for the walking blockhouses who patrolled each district’s streets. Usually the owner, Piotr, would intervene in fights before they got too serious, but on the wrong day he wasn’t above watching teeth and blood getting knocked out of some blowhard on either side who needed to be taken down a peg. A humid and visceral smell hung outside the place. Piotr called it earthy. Pavel always walked a full block around it.
“Understood, Torsten. Keep in mind I only brought three pieces of vellum with me.” He pulled a second piece from his satchel, put it back on the only occupied table in the Tavern, and re-dipped his quill.
A TALE OF HEROIC STRENGTH
Know ye all that once again, the Boar of the Borovoi defended Ussuran honor against any who fail to recognize our enduring strength and valor.
Gunter the Toothless Sow entered the Charging Tiger today with no regard for the sovereignty of the Ussuran District or the unbreakable honor of the Ussuran people.
Pavel looked over briefly to the door. It still wobbled on its hinge from when Gunter Metzger, the self-styled Fanged Panzerhand, had kicked it open. Pavel realized the builders busily working in the room would eventually get to it. He felt motion from Torsten pulling his hand back and in turn reacted by quickly pushing his quill forward. He was very sensitive to motion, especially after the day’s recent events.
After harassing the servers and roaring at the assembled peaceable crowd, he confronted Torsten Vakt and challenged him to surrender his table and chair. Gunter called himself ‘more of a man’ and ‘a better fighter than anyone in the room’. Torsten stood up and sundered the table with a single blow. “A table Gunter Toothless wants to sit at has no place in this fine Ussuran tavern.”
Torsten laughed loudly, and Pavel took the moment to look sideways at the table Torsten had previously occupied. Torsten had indeed broken the table, but it was only half a plank that had fallen. It’d been loud enough to stifle the conversation at the normally rowdy dockside tavern. He turned back to the page – and then once again to Torsten.
“This next bit where you challenge Gunter to fight in the street – I’m thinking I need to make this the formal part. You know, official terms and the honor of the ritual fight. I’ll use words for something like you proposed an official settlement – but stronger.” Torsten rolled his eyes.
“You do what you must – I’ve never troubled myself to learn the words of the library.” Pavel nodded and dipped his quill again.
Torsten propositioned Gunter that the two of them should work in the streets to prove which of them is the strongest and the hardest.
Pavel looked up at Torsten. “You see – stronger words take more letters, but they send the message better.” Torsten sighed and drank from his third tankard of the afternoon. “Just keep writing, tupoy.” Pavel nodded, and coughed briefly before turning back to the page.
Gunter refused, saying he didn’t need to listen to Ussuran words. He struck without warning, pushing into Torsten before he could rise, and knocked him up.
Torsten snorted. “Don’t you mean ‘over’?” Pavel sighed and lazily waved his left hand at Torsten. “Leave the words to me. Up, over, down, around. Trust me, it works.” Torsten took another drink as Pavel continued.
Torsten rose to defend the honor of the Ussuran name and character. He smashed a chair and wielded one of its legs with skill and drove Gunter backwards, pressing him towards the tavern wall. Gunter reached for the drawstring of his panzerhand pouch, but Wlada, the Charging Tiger’s proprietor, warned him that unsheathing weapons was cause to summon the district guards. And so Gunter immediately struck at the chair leg, knocking it out of Torsten’s hands. ‘If I cannot be armed, then neither can you.’
Pavel looked at the pile of debris being swept into the center of the tavern floor. He reflected that among the rubble were the five or six small pieces of Torsten’s improvised weapon. Gunter had reached up with his naked fist, grappled the club, and smashed it against a nearby table, reducing the makeshift weapon to splintered fragments. Pavel repressed a shudder and continued.
They then engaged hand in hand, each struggling to dominate the other. Yet there was fear in Gunter, for he shied from Torsten’s every attempt to land a blow.
Pavel paused to cough – and managed to do so, saving his own life from the danger of laughing within Torsten’s reach. Pavel remembered watching Torsten drunkenly staggering around, barely able to work out where Gunter was right at the moment, let alone where his punch would land. Gunter had started to mockingly dance and hum, and Torsten had swung twice in time with the music as Gunter dodged two arms lengths away. If only the fight had stayed that way, Pavel mused while rubbing his neck with his offhand. He started to write again, but paused and turned to look at Torsten.
“Are you sure you want me to write this next part the way you said? It doesn’t sound particularly valiant.”
Torsten finished his sloppy quaff from the tankard and shouted. “Yes! Those Eisen shoats are disgustingly vile. I’m not letting Toothless Gunter sully the good name of loyal war hounds.” Pavel shrugged and put his pen back to the parchment.
And the fight continued until Gunter, driven up to the wall by Torsten’s relentless pursuit, called on his pet rat for help. The small and insignificant pest darted into the fight and caught at Torsten’s boot. In Torsten’s attempt to kick at the thing, he fell backwards onto the floor, and the sturdy floorboards hewn from stolid Ussuran lumber knocked the wind from him.
‘Rat’ was a very loose way of describing an Eischäfer, a large hunting hound used by Eisen troops in combat. Gunter had left his outside the tavern, and apparently had just decided the fight was over. A dark-brown blur had other thoughts as it darted into the room, and clipped Torsten in the back of his leg above the knee. The hound then leapt onto Torsten’s back, momentarily keeping him from rising. At this juncture, Gunter had issued a clipped command to his pet.
With that, the hound had indeed made water… all over Torsten’s leg. Pavel knew Torsten would throw a fit if he looked at it now, but even after the first free stein and a half of ale had been poured over it, Pavel could still smell it. A bit. Pavel barely remembered that part, however, because it’d been the first moment Yevgeni the Boar, Iron Bulwark of the Ussuran district of Five Sails, had reacted to the ongoing fight. Pavel momentarily looked back to where Yevgeni had been sitting with his trusted counselor Ved’ma, an elderly woman with weathered features and long, matted gray hair.
Yevgeni the Boar stood well over two meters tall and easily massed one hundred and twenty-five kilos. The few times street toughs or bandits attacked him on the streets of Five Sails, they came a half dozen or more at once and it was never enough. His skin swirled with scars and a long, tangled black beard that contrasted with a bald pate. He dressed in traditional Ussuran garb – a rough white shirt, brown woven pants, and leather boots.
His wizened companion remained seated. Ved’ma had chosen to grace the tavern by dressing solely in worn leather sandals along with a bracelet woven of dried vines thick with charms and sigils. She appeared aloof to people’s reactions of embarrassment and disgust, responding instead only to Yevgeni’s occasional queries.
They’d been whispering together, deep in thought, when Gunter had ordered his dog to start pissing on an Ussuran. Yevgeni calmly rose up to his full height, and called over a barmaid. The words had been whispered, but in the hush of Torsten’s humiliation, they were clear.
“Fetch the builders.” The barmaid, an older Ussuran matron, turned immediately and walked out through the back door. Yevgeni turned back, and moved at an unhurried pace towards Gunter, who hadn’t noticed at all. But Pavel absolutely had noticed, and he’d joined most of the audience in finding something to cower behind. Pavel had chosen his own table, but couldn’t help but watch the towering Ussuran. When Yevgeni struck, it was always terrible and magnificent, both in equal measure.
Yevgeni spoke to Gunter’s back. “Too far. Now…”
Yevgeni pulled his hands up and back. A cold crackle filled the space around him. The moment seemed to slow down. Pavel would never be sure if it was the majesty of Yevgeni’s fury, or a literal thing. Either way he hoped he’d never have a better chance to know.
The windows of the tavern shuddered, the doors flung open wide. Cold air sparkled, and thin strands of light flickered around Yevgeni’s shoulders.
With a violent and deafening cry, Yevgeni the Boar brought his hands up and forward, and the rush of a bitter Ussuran winter tempest that could blast tundras smooth surged towards Gunter, who’d barely turned sideways by the time the sorcerous energy slammed into him.
The word was a thunderclap, and Pavel winced as he recollected it. He still ached from Yevgeni’s attack, even though it had been hours ago and he’d been yards away behind a thick table.
The windstorm snatched up Gunter’s burly body, a twig in a rushing river. The blast drove him through two other tables, and directly towards the hearth near the front of the tavern.
Through the hearth – through a solid foot of brick baked by years of cookfires – and out into the street amongst a hail of disintegrating clay rubble. Silence as the windblast died just as soon as it had come. Before Pavel had briefly fainted, he’d seen Ved’ma smile and call out to Yevgeni. Pavel hadn’t made out the words, as his hearing wouldn’t return for minutes. But between the motion of her dry and withered lips and her relaxed yet bored expression, he put together a good guess at what she’d said.
“Stop playing, medvezhonok. You have work to do.”
And that was how Yevgeni the Boar, the Protector of the Ussuran District, rose to drive a foul and scurrilous Eisen fighter out of the Charging Tiger, nevermore to return.
The Ussuran warrior spirit cannot be denied!
Pavel put his quill back in the inkwell, and let Torsten read over his shoulder. Both of them knew Gunter wouldn’t be returning because the barmaid who’d fetched the builders had seen Gunter’s broken and shrieking form out on the street. If it were possible for the body to recover from such injuries, Pavel didn’t know. But it would be up to Gunter’s commander in the Eisen guard to decide whether to bring sufficient extract of lotus to alleviate some of Gunter’s suffering, or additional to relieve him of life and breath. As Gunter would undoubtedly beg for if he ever returned to his senses at all.
Torsten once again slapped at Pavel’s head – but this time, Pavel dodged most of it. “Go on, tupoy – run this over to the gymnasium at once. The world will know of Ussuran strength today!”
Pavel looked over to the builder crew, busily raking up rubble and constructing a ramshackle wood covering for the cavernous hole in the tavern’s wall. There was enough stone and brick left to keep the chimney standing, and the builders had first reinforced it to limit the damage.The carts of clay, stones, and mortar would come tomorrow.
The carts always signified someone had gotten on the wrong side of the Boar. Pavel nodded gravely. “They know, Torsten. They know.”